Colin Meloy
9:30 Club; Washington, DC


Why do so many people think Colin Meloy is such an asshole? If one were to scour the web for opinions on the front man of the seminal Portland collective The Decemberists, any praise found would be tempered with an equal amount of vitriol. This sentiment is never leveled at the musicality of Meloy and his cohorts, though, but squarely targets the man himself. After a period when nary an article would reach print without dubbing the band “literate” and “erudite,” the inevitable backlash appeared, attacking the very virtues that made The Decemberists famous in the first place.

Then what’s the problem? Has Meloy’s brand of nerd-rock for those who do the Sunday Times crossword and revel at online IQ tests grown tiresome? When my friend describes Meloy as “the smarmy villain from every ’80s teen flick,” did he mean the sweater-wearing Ivy League-bound James Spader from Pretty in Pink or the dickhead thug William Zabka from The Karate Kid fame? Has Meloy just grown too priggish, pretentious, and preposterous for the indie kids?

Let me be the first to admit that I am a Decemberists fan. While I waited outside the 9:30 Club for my friend to arrive, I saw a bunch of people trying to unload spare tickets. Bad sign. Usually the corner of V and 9th is jumping before a show, but beyond the unlucky scalpers, only I stood out in the cold that night. Something felt wrong. That didn’t matter too much. I was excited.

Inside, a modest crowd waited for Meloy to take the stage. I have been attending shows here for a few years, and rarely has it been so empty. What’s the story, Colin? Do you need Chris Funk to bring the noise? Is it really Nate Query the groundlings are clamoring to see?

Meloy finally appeared and informed us that DC is his “home away from home.” As he led the crowd through a series of vocal warm-ups, I asked myself if this was the self-possessed man I have heard so much about. He was positively disarming, embracing the crowd before launching into “Shiny” from the 5 Songs EP.

One thing can be said about Decemberists fans: they are wordy folk. As Meloy moved between stripped-down renditions of “The Perfect Crime” and “O Valencia!,” the crowd sang along, not missing a single word. When Meloy strapped on a 12-string guitar to play the Picaresque trio of “The Engine Driver,” “We Both Go Down Together,” and “The Bagman’s Gambit,” his wistful melodies presented themselves, unburdened by The Decemberists’ lush arrangements. It is undeniable that Colin Meloy has stage presence, and these three songs were the highlight of the evening. He has a strong, distinctive voice, and he employed it well during the show. The guitar sounded crisp and clear, and it is easy to lose oneself in his tales of chimbly-sweeps and scalawags.

The Decemberists announced but then promptly canceled a tour late last year, where they planned to play long songs one night and short ones the next. Meloy apologized to the crowd for the cancellation and said, “I’m doing my best to make up for it on my own. Self-flagellation in the form of a rock tour.” Though he didn’t draw the numbers that the truncated sold-out tour had garnered, the appreciative crowd applauded his self-effacement and apology.

This is not Meloy’s first solo tour, and it has become a tradition for him to hawk a tour-only EP of covers. Past collections saw Meloy covering the songs of Morrisey and Shirley Collins. Before launching into a version of “Cupid,” Meloy took a moment to pimp out his newest Sam Cooke collection. Joined onstage by opener Laura Gibson (dressed in something last seen in some Polygamist sect), Meloy turned in a serviceable version of one of Cooke’s classic songs.

Meloy closed out the first set with a humorous new track about Valerie Plame that dissolved into a sing-along of “Hey Jude” and “A Cautionary Song” from his band’s first LP, Castaways and Cutouts. As Meloy sang the lead guitar part over his own strumming, it struck me just how dependent his tunes are on the full orchestration of the band. While a lot of them are just good folk songs without the rest of the band, others are sketchy and slight. Could it be the accordion and violin that really make The Decemberists standout?

The encore did little to exorcise my doubts, but it did confuse me more. After refusing to deviate from the setlist (he blamed something in his past life that prevents him from doing so), Meloy performed a heartbreaking version of “Red Right Ankle.” Somewhere in the quiet plucking, I realized that beneath the armor of big words and tongue-in-cheek witticisms, Meloy is a sentimentalist. Most of his songs are about lost love or longing. Could all the ostentatious instrumentation and high-minded tales be the self-defense mechanism of a romantic? I think so.

But Colin Meloy the Showman soon reappeared for the evening’s finale of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” perhaps one of the best known tracks by Decemberists fans. The crowd thrilled to this shanty of madness and revenge. Meloy paused to let the audience sing the female parts and even to lecture us on the differences between “screaming” and “quailing.” Though rollicking and fun, this final song seemed safe, a big way to end the evening.

Why does everyone hate on Meloy so much? Plenty of rock stars have been pricks and have rarely gotten such a bad rap. Let’s admit it, most of us music nerds were never the most popular kids at school. We weren’t in the lowest stratum, but we weren’t the All-American football stars either. Just maybe Meloy was one of those guys below us, a shy kid with glasses who liked to read. Could it be envy? Does his success cause us to look at our lives with more scrutiny?

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